"The Palace of Art"

The eternal conflict between land and sea plays out in the palace's third room. The “iron coast and angry waves” battle to break each other directly next door to the previous stanza's coastal scene of a lone figure pacing along the sea's sandy edge. Menacing undertones of the night sea's dangers rise to the surface in this stanza as an allegory for the struggle between human society and the chaotic forces of nature. Referring to it as the “iron coast” provides the key to understanding the hint of a deeper meaning in the stanza.

Endless expanses of water beat at the shores of civilization, as indicated by the reference to iron—a natural element extracted and reformed by humans to build the structures and machines that drove the Industrial Revolution. Though the description of the iron coast can refer simply to the cliffs' colors, the critical ambiguity paints a poetic image of a coastal boundary wrought by humans to fend off the vast, inhospitable sea.

The waves of chaos batter the shores of civilization, but in the end the waves are “rock-thwarted” and leave the land's defenses intact. The sea's destructive energy is fended off for the moment, but the “bellowing caves,/ Beneath the windy wall” belie the ultimate vulnerability of the cliffs to erosion by the ceaseless battering by the wind and waves.

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One show'd an iron coast and angry waves
You seem'd to hear them climb and fall
And roar rock-thwarted under bellowing caves,
Beneath the windy wall.

Like ashes the low cliffs crumble,
The banks drop down into dust,
The heights of the hills are made humble,
As a reed's is the strength of their trust;
As a city's that armies environ,
The strength of their stay is of sand:
But the grasp of the sea is as iron,
Laid hard on the land.

A land that is thirstier than ruin;
A sea that is hungrier than death;
Heaped hills that a tree never grew in;
Wide sands where the wave draws breath;
All solace is here for the spirit
That ever for ever may be
For the soul of thy son to inherit,
My mother, my sea.

From "By the North Sea" (lines 259-274) by A. C. Swinburne


"Algernon Charles Swinburne" - William Bell Scott

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1860) - William Bell Scott